Mindful eating: how eating a sultana can improve our attention

It took probably all of 10 – 15 minutes to eat that sultana. Mindfully.

As I sat in the mindfulness class being encouraged to use all of my senses to really experience eating it, I realised several things.

Firstly, that sultanas are really interesting to look through – like squishy pieces of amber revealing hidden treasures. They also make a crackling noise when held close to your ear and rolled between your fingers. Secondly, that eating a sultana really slowly, to feel it’s texture in my mouth, to actually taste it, to experience biting into it, made me realise I’m not that keen on sultanas. Thirdly and most importantly though, is that for many of us eating our food has become a secondary activity devoid of pleasure and mystique.

The role of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a way of engaging fully in the present moment. It is a way of quietening down the frenetic mind, which is forever busy thinking about the past and predicting the future. It is a way of just “being”.

It is a way of enhancing attention and focus, skills, which in our distracted modern world are at risk of being ever diminished.

I recently caught up with friends for dinner at a restaurant. We had so much to talk about. There was much discussion and laughter. It was only as we said our goodbyes that it dawned me that I had paid virtually no attention to the food that had been ordered and eaten – I had been so busy focussing my attention on my friends. The food had been good I am sure, but had I really enjoyed it, savoured it, yet alone tasted it?

Eating that sultana reminded me that I am as guilty as many others, of ignoring the present in the rush for the future: the next meeting, the next task, the next idea.

When eating alone, how many of us use that time to catch up on reading the newspaper or a magazine, or tuning in to the T.V.? How many of us sitting down to eat as a family, plonk down in front of the telly?

As a teenager I was addicted to those chocolate crème eggs that were sold in the lead up to Easter. The trick was to see just how long you could make the egg last. I think forty minutes was my record. That was probably my first (and unintentional!) experience of eating mindfully.

The advantages of paying attention to what we eat.

Paying attention to our food allows us to really notice (i.e. pay attention to) what we are eating, as well as whether we like the food or not. It also allows us to recognise other cues such as satiety. If we eat on the run, cramming the next snack into our mouth as we hurtle out of the door, we deny our body and brain the opportunity to tell us that what we have eaten was good, bad or indifferent and we ignore those signals indicating we have actually eaten enough.

Fast food is often poor quality, cheap food that may contain far too much fat, salt or sugar. But because we often consume it fast, we are less likely to notice that it actually doesn’t taste very good.

If I had to sit and eat a chicken nugget mindfully instead of a sultana, (which is not something I would want to do!) I think it would really highlight the nastiness of the nugget, being overly fatty, devoid of any real chicken taste or any other particular taste for that matter.

Traditionally food has played a major role in our society. Special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings are still marked with special feasts. But everyday meals are often rushed, slapped down on the table and eaten quickly so that we can return to other “more important” items. Today eating is perceived more as an interruption to the busyness of our day. Something we have to do, to refuel our body and mind, rather than enjoy doing.

So why not have a go at eating a food mindfully, as an exercise in reconnecting with the simple pleasure of enjoying good food. It could be a strawberry, a tomato, an apple, even a sultana – just take your time to hold, look at, smell and taste.

Remember, by pausing to enjoy the moment, we enhance our ability to pay attention. So if you want to improve your attention skills this is a great way to start.

Some questions to ask ourselves.

• Would eating more mindfully allow us to reconnect in a good way with food?

• Would paying attention to our food, it's taste, texture and aroma make us more open to trying different foods?

• Could mindful eating, by leading us to eat less, be one way to start tackling the obesity problem?

What do you think?